A man walked into a bar. How trite an opening, how well-worn and inelegant, and yet it started in precisely that way.
Claudia spotted him first. I had been flirting with two of the male patrons of the Fallen Unicorn, and so my attention was elsewhere. They were big men, broad-shouldered and powerful, their bodies equally as hard as the work they performed. Their hands were rough and calloused, and they still had about them the youthful force and vitality that another ten years of labor would break down, strip away as surely as some night-creature fastening on their lives.
I understood that, the inevitable pattern of life for these working men as it had been for their sires and grandsires, but what did I care? I was interested in them now, and when morning came I wouldn't spare them another thought. Callous of me? Perhaps so--but were their intentions any different? Did they had any hopes of more than a night's pleasure with me, a girl dressed in...well, if not silks and satins, then at least a brocade travel-dress and cloak. A pair of journeying aristocrats, they thought Claudia and I, and ones who would be glad of a moment's passing pleasure.
Nor were they particularly wrong.
So it was Claudia who saw him first, whose attention was caught by the opening door and the man entering. But I was caught, too, by the hush that fell, conversations stopping, the click of knucklebones on wooden tables and the jingle of coin stilling. Even my two companions' faces grew still, their eyes hard, the smiling lips below their drooping black moustaches turned to thin, tight lines. So I turned my head to see what prodigy had captured the inn's entire complement.
He was beautiful.
Not handsome, no. Not a picture of square-jawed, iron-thewed manhood. Beautiful as an incubus or fallen angel. The skin of his face alabaster-white and silk-smooth, the features with just enough aquiline sharpness to make them elegantly aristocratic without being cruel or hawkish. His hair was purest white and of a gossamer softness many ladies--myself included!--would gleefully kill for. He wore it long, spilling down over the shoulders of his leather hunting jacket. He was tall, his body slim and lithe, his bearing aristocratic and determined.
No wonder conversation had ceased and everyone was staring. Claudia and I were aristocratic but ultimately women, something these people thought they understood. The stranger was different, separated not only by status and wealth but by essence. He was a man, yet his delicate, almost feminine appearance--coupled with the complete self-confidence of his attitude, his walk that belied weakness--marked him as other. He did not suit their notions of manhood, He was alien. Outsider. Perhaps threatening.
The barmaids were of course another matter. Like Claudia and myself, their silence was not born of fear and distrust, but rapture.
"The Prince," Claudia whispered as the man strode to the bar.
"Do you think so?" I asked. "I can't believe it."
I had not seen the Prince myself. None of our circle had. Only by portraits did we know his face, only by stories did we know his deeds, often whispered stories. Traitor and best-beloved one.
Yet here he was? In the flesh, in this small-town inn?
His gaze swept the room, acknowledging the challenge, the distrust. The message was strong in it; he accepted the existence of their feelings, their reasons for them, but not the feelings themselves. Even the tavern throng, I was sure, could read the meaning in his eyes. And such eyes! Not the pinkish-red of the true albino, but as pale as his skin and hair, the ghost-gray of a cloud-strewn sky with flashes of silver brightness.
He strode to the bar, his movements graceful and elegant.
"I'll have a room for the night; your best."
A kid-gloved hand set a coin down. It flashed gold, which won over the innkeeper to his side.
"And stabling for your horse, m'lord?"
The stranger shook his head.
"I have neither steed nor companion."
No, I thought, the Prince would have no horse, no fellow traveler. Of course, the regular patrons did not understand this. A nobleman travel on foot? Without retinue or carriage? Without even a horse? And yet with gold in his purse? What aristocrat suffered any hardship they could pay to avoid? The murmurs began.
Claudia rose from her seat and crossed to him. Brazen wench! She always had been direct in satisfying her wants for as long as I'd known her. Indeed, her refreshing openness was one reason I found her company pleasant at most times, tolerable at worst. I despised females who were subtle, conniving, unwilling to say what they meant if they could hint at it obliquely. I preferred a rapacious wolf at my side to a cat or serpent, thank you.
But oh, how I wished I had risen first!
"Perhaps milord has a companion after all?" she said, fingering the broad, folded lapel of his jacket. I saw him flinch, drawing back at first--serves her right!--then felt the gentle surge as she exerted herself.
"You see, I am not like common women," she told him. That was what she was doing. There was no attempt to enthrall the stranger with more-than-natural charm. The Prince would hardly be susceptible to that, anyway, and it would likely offend him besides. She was just proving the truth of her words. "Yet, I share dreams with many of them," she went on. "I wish to one day find my Prince."
Her back was to me, so I could not see her face, but I could see his and how it changed from revulsion at common lechery to a thoughtful interest. His hand rose, his gloved fingertips seeming to brush her lips.
"So I see. No, you are no ordinary woman, are you?"
Oh, damn you, Claudia! I could have wished the devils of the Pit to feast on her winsome eyes, her clever tongue. But I have never been one to cry over spilt milk, and once the room key was in his hand and he had left arm-in-arm with my friend, I turned back to my male companions.
"Come now, gentlemen," I said with forced brightness, "we must learn from Claudia's example, for the evening will not last forever." We had to make do with the stable loft, but at least there was the consolation that my desired had not dimmed, merely been briefly eclipsed by the brighter light of the stranger. And perhaps that brighter light made me exert myself more, to claim every bit of satisfaction I could from my companions rather than casually waste their potential.
Later, I descended to the inn-yard and took the time to savor the cool night air, still with the promise of coming poor weather but not yet heavy with it. I liked such nights.
I liked them the more when the stranger emerged from the inn's side door, alone.
"Good evening, milord," I greeted him. "What, has that been all the time Claudia could offer you?"
"On the contrary, it took longer than I'd hoped to free myself of her. I'd intended to come see you sooner."
My eyes widened, and my heart sang. Would I repeat those words to Claudia, or celebrate my triumph in silence? But that was for tomorrow night! Now, I flew to him, crossing the inn-yard with seemingly nary a step, pressing myself against him. Ah, but he was hard and strong despite his slender form, and how the power thrummed through him! I'd never wanted anyone like this, not ever! I had no control at all; my eyeteeth were out, my Hunger rising even though I'd just glutted it on the blood of the two laborers. He was far too intoxicating to resist, the spice of mortality mixed with the richness of true power in a way I'd never felt. Better than human, better than vampire.
"It's true, isn't it?" I murmured as I ripped at his collar with two-inch nails. "You're him, aren't you?" My tongue traced the throbbing artery in his throat. "Prince Adrian, son of our Master!"
Pain. It was a spear through my belly, hot and bright. I staggered away from him, fumbled weakly at the knife-hilt I found protruding from my abdomen, and managed to pull the silver-inlaid dagger from the wound.
"What! Who--?" I gasped.
"Your friend took too long to kill," he said grimly. "My failure cost your victims their lives."
A hunter, then. The holy silver was lesson enough without his words, and there were always hunters if one was careless. But that explained nothing, not the power that I could feel emanating from his blood without even tasting it.
He swept the long hem of his coat back, reaching for what was concealed there, hanging on his hip. Then I understood.
Did I know that chain-linked whip? Does the witch not know the stake and pyre, the bandit the rope, the traitor the headsman's axe?
"Belmont!" I shrieked. Was it rage or terror? Did I wish to rip him apart with my talons, or flee into the darkest, deepest patch of night? I had no idea.
"Juste," he acknowledged, even as the whip's spiked head lashed out to claim me.